What You Say Online – Minors Edition

Dude, why did you say that?

Over at my LJ I spent some time recounting this story of post-election bursts of racism, and talking about my own experiences growing up in one of these similar types of towns where it’s 99.999% white people and racism continues to rear its ugly head.  The quick version: Barack Obama wins the national election.  A bunch of racist people take to the internet to voice their racist opinions.  Some of these people saying these racist things were teens.

And that’s where things got interesting.

The folks over at Jezebel recognized that a bunch of these tweets were coming from teenagers, who posted a ton of their personal information online.  Their full legal name.  Their school.  Pictures of themselves in their school uniforms, or team uniforms. Details about potential recruiting for colleges, etc.  So, they started calling up the schools, and pointing out that these students were in pretty much every case violating the code of behavior for their student body, and not serving as a positive role model or representative of the school.  And then they wrote an article about it.  They named their names, their schools, and more.

Today, Read Write Web called out Jezebel for violating journalistic ethics by engaging in public harassment of minors. The argument from RWW is that traditional journalism respects that minors who commit criminal actions or who engage in inappropriate behavior would not normally be named in an article or on a news broadcast.  Juvenile court records can be sealed, and often are, to allow for the mistakes of a young person to not tarnish the potential for a normal adult life.  The salient component from the RWW article:

When a minor commits a crime in the real world, the cops know who the kid is, as do the neighbors and everyone in the community. The journalist covering the crime knows the kid’s name, and if anyone wanted to, they could find out the minor’s name just by pulling up the public police report.

And this is where the internet is different, and it’s a point that I addressed in my personal blog.  Writing something on the internet doesn’t stay in your little town.  It is something that is PUBLISHED.  By putting your name, your location, and your words out there for anyone in the public to see, you are inviting the criticism of the world, and engaging in the very same game that publishers and journalists have been playing in for years.  The internet pierces the bubble of the local domain and expands your influence to the entire world.

This is why a viral video can spark an embassy attack.

What you do online means something, and it has consequences.  Some people are being visited by the Secret Service because they made threats against the President on Twitter.  It’s gravely serious.

So, the question is, should this news outlet publicly state the names of these teens who posted racist tweets?  I am standing by Jezebel on this one.  These teens already put themselves out there.  They may not have realized what they were doing would have such a profound impact, or even be picked up as national news.  And that is a failure of educating kids about how the internet works.  These kids probably thought that nobody read their stuff, and that they were just writing for their friends.  When in reality, what they are saying, however inane it might be, is viewable by anyone.  And that is the wake up call that they all just received.

This is core information literacy stuff right here.  Developing an online reputation, managing your personal information, exercising care and caution in what you say and how you say it to people.  All of these things are important, and kids don’t get it.  And with caching, and archiving, they will be subjected to the words they put out when they were at their most vulnerable.

I recall reading an article about a high school that developed an internal social network for their students.  The purpose of this social network was to give the students a kind of internet training-wheels so that they could experiment in a controlled environment before they went and swam in the deep end of the pool (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)  The student would spend the year in that environment, play around in it, get comfortable with it, and then slowly they would start to slip up, and then have a consultation with one of the faculty members or the principal.  The purpose of this exercise was to develop an understanding of what you say online, and how this can negatively affect you.  This absolutely needs to be incorporated into early education, and I’m talking like children 10 years old or less.  This is not intended to scare the kids, but to teach the kids about the lasting impact they will leave on the world, and the trail of information that may be used against them, even from when they are very, very young.

At the library we see kids on the internet pretty much all day long.  Some of these very young kids are on facebook and they are sharing pictures with each other. I will guarantee you that probably not a single one of them understands the privacy settings.  Hell, most adults don’t understand them.  And beyond that, they’re not thinking about what these pictures may say 10, 20, 30 years down the road.  And they absolutely need to learn that.  Being online isn’t a game.  It’s real.  And the consequences can haunt you forever.

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